A Fascinating (and Horrific) True Tale

Do you agree with the following paragraph? Let me know.

“Language is mobile and liable to change. It is a free country, and man may call a “vase” a “vawse”, a “vahse”, a “vaze”, or a “vase”, as he pleases. And why should he not? We do not all think alike, walk alike, dress alike, write alike, or dine alike; why should not we use our liberty in speech also, so long as the purpose of speech, to be intelligible, and its grace, are not interfered with?”

-James Murray, lexicographer and editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (7 Feb 1837-1915)

Personally, I can’t argue with Murray. The Dictionary of American Regional English gives examples from around the country of pronunciations and differing words for the same object. You call it tonic or a Coke (even if it’s 7-Up) or fizzy water or a soft drink, and I call it soda. As long as we understand what each of us means, we should get along.

Professor James Murray is the focus of Simon Winchester’s gripping book, The Professor and the Madmen. Here’s a blurb from Amazon about the book. It’s an unexpected and remarkable tale about the most prolific contributor to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

“The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.”

And from Wikipedia:

“In 1871 he (Dr. Minor) went to London, settling in the slum of Lambeth, where once again he took up a dissolute life. Haunted by his paranoia, he fatally shot a man named George Merrett, who Minor believed had broken into his room, on February 17, 1872. Merrett had been on his way to work to support his family of six children, himself, and his pregnant wife, Eliza. After a pre-trial period spent in London’s Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Minor was found not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated in the asylum at Broadmoor in the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire. As he had his US army pension and was not judged dangerous, he was given rather comfortable quarters and was able to buy and read books.[4][5]

“It was probably through his correspondence with the London booksellers that he heard of the call for volunteers from what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). He devoted most of the remainder of his life to that work.[6] He became one of the project’s most effective volunteers, reading through his large personal library of antiquarian books and compiling quotations that illustrated the way particular words were used. He was often visited by the widow of the man he had killed, and she provided him with further books. The compilers of the dictionary published lists of words for which they wanted examples of usage. Minor provided these, with increasing ease as the lists grew. It was many years before the OEDs editor, Dr. James Murray, learned Minor’s background history, and visited him in January 1891. In 1899 Murray paid compliment to Minor’s enormous contributions to the dictionary, stating, ‘we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.’[7][8]

“Minor’s condition deteriorated and in 1902, due to delusions that he was being abducted nightly from his rooms and conveyed to places as far away as Istanbul, and forced to commit sexual assaults on children, he cut off his own penis (autopenectomy) using a knife he had employed in his work on the dictionary.[9] His health continued to worsen, and after Murray campaigned on his behalf, Minor was released in 1910 on the orders of Home Secretary Winston Churchill.[9] He was deported back to the United States and resided at St. Elizabeths Hospital where he was diagnosed with dementia praecox. He died in 1920 in Hartford, Connecticut, after being moved in 1919 to the Retreat for the Elderly Insane there.”[10]

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